In Memory of Mohamed Arkoun

Few of Arkoun's Books are available in translation, but this is on Amazon.

Mohamed Arkoun, a great philosopher and scholar, particularly on the role of Islam in the development of Maghrebi society and on the relationship of Islam and the West, died Tuesday September 14 in Paris and was buried the following Friday, September 17 in Achouhada cemetery in Casablanca. He was 82 years old. In Robert Altman’s cinema adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, the angel of death whispers to a woman weeping over the discovery that a loved one has died peacefully, “The death of an old man is not a tragedy.”

That struck me as fundamentally true. But I thought to myself that it doesn’t make it less painful to those close to him. And while it may not be a tragedy, it is certainly still a loss, especially when the man is a figure of the stature of Mohamed Arkoun. I remember reading his writing when researching my dissertation, and it returned to my mind in the weeks and months after 9-11. It comes to mind again now, as we see nasty rhetoric against heating up again in this country.
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Here we go again!

A new attack ad targeting three Democratic senators and one Republican criticizes “hidden taxes on … pensions and retirement accounts” in the financial regulation legislation being considered by Congress, and urges the senators to “vote against this phony financial reform.”

The ad gives a false impression. The Senate bill doesn’t contain the tax mentioned in the ad.

(It) is the work of a less-than-transparent group calling itself “Stop Too Big To Fail,” which says its $1.6 million ad buy is targeting senators in Nevada, Virginia and Missouri (Sens. Harry Reid, Mark Warner, Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond).

So begins a April 23, 2010 posting from Fact…

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“Internationalized Academe Is Inevitable,” but Will We Do it Well

“The internationalization of higher education is inevitable,” Mr. Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said in a speech on Wednesday to the Association of International Education Administrators whose members are meeting here this week.

In internationalization, “some bold universities will lead,” Mr. Levine said. “Others will be populizers. And others will hold onto the past and will be destined to fail.”

via “Internationalized Academe Is Inevitable, but Its Form Is Not,” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The quotation above is from a short version of a longer article the was published in the February 26 print edition of the Chronicle.  A recurring point of tension at that meeting, and one that is also clear from the comments on the report linked above, is that there is a tension between the need to internationalize curricula and the costs of doing so. Like so many sectors of the economy, higher education is experiencing significant financial challenges and this is the problem.

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Speak French or Arabic Fluently in Just Minutes

A lot of technologies promise to have you speaking a language in a matter of weeks, 30 days maximum. They seldom deliver, of course. But finally there’s is an application that delivers, and better and faster than any other book, audio recording, software or even liv teacher or tutor. Within a matter of minutes, literally, this application can have you speaking a basic set of essential phrases in French or Arabic with the fluency of a native speaker. Yes, you’ll be able to ask directions, order food and drink, discuss sports, book a hotel and all the other things you need to get by on a daily basis. And the words will come out of your own lips.

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Journalism and Gender

Here are two articles that touch on freedom of the press and gender in the Islamic world.

A journalist in Afghanistan who had a death sentence for blasphemy commuted to 20 years in prison has now been released, officials say.

Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh has been pardoned by President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan justice ministry confirmed.

Relatives of Mr Kambaksh said he had already left Afghanistan as he had been granted asylum by a European country.

In 2007, he was convicted of distributing material that questioned Islamic attitudes to women.

Media rights groups have welcomed the release of Mr Kambakhsh, which they say is the result of persistent lobbying.

via Afghan Journalist Freed from Jail

In this second article, a journalist was arrested, but not for anything she said or did.  Unlike Mr Kambakhsh, she wasn’t charged with blasphemy or with some crime against the state, as dissident journalist so often are.  Her crime was her attire.  She wasn’t dressed properly.

A Sudanese court ruled on Monday that journalist Lubna Ahmad Al-Hussein should be fined two hundred dollars for wearing trousers; considered an indecent outfit in Sudan – applying Islamic Sharia in their law. It’s worth mentioning that Lubna was threatened of a verdict amounting to 40 whip lashes…  More than a thousand persons, including numerous women in trousers, demonstrated in front of the court on Monday in solidarity with the journalist. The police broke up the demonstrators and detained forty eight female activists and journalists on the charge of inciting a riot.

via Trouser-wearing Sudanese journalist escapes flogging, fined $200

It’s worth pointing out that this article is from the site Meedan, a site with the goal of connecting Arabic and English speakers by taking advantage of machine-assisted translation technology.  A useful resource.  More on that later.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan: No More Cuts! Keep Foreign Languages in Schools

In “No More Cuts! Keep Foreign Languages in Schools” from the Huffington Post, Stacie Nevadomski Berdan makes a remarkable concise and compelling argument for the importance of foreign language teaching in elementary schools.  She really drives the point home in the following paragraphs.

In the global financial crisis, Americans learned that — for the first time — the so-called developing world surged past the developed world in its share of global productivity; Americans are learning that we can no longer afford to ignore China, Russia, India or Brazil. When today’s kids grow up, they are as likely to be competing for jobs in and with people from Beijing or Brasilia or Bangalore as from Boston or Baton Rouge. In our ever-shrinking world, global experience will continue to move from “nice” to “must-have” for career success.

At stake is nothing less than our ability to compete successfully in the raw global arena, and one of the deciding factors will be American professionals’ ability to speak strategic foreign languages.

However, because studies show that language learning comes more easily to those whose brains are still in the development phase — up until roughly 12 or 13 years of age — when we cut language programs from elementary schools, we are inhibiting bilingualism in future adults. We comfort ourselves with the unrealistic expectation that students will learn in high school or college. But that is unlikely to happen due to the increased difficulty in language learning as we get older. Arguably, bold and innovative new methods of teaching foreign language are needed now more than ever – and instituted in schools as early as kindergarten.

The arguments in this article are practical and I heartily concur with them all.  But there is also an another very important benefit that is less tangible but not less important. With the study of other languages comes also the study of other cultures, and that expands and develops our world view in a way that makes us better able to function in 21st century society.

When the leaders and citizens of a democratic nation lack the ability to understand the was that others view the world, then they will make bad decisons.  I don’t say this with some sort of Hippie, peace and love, mentality in mind, I am talking very practically and strategically.  For exaple, many of our worst policies in the Middle East are due to a poor cultual understanding of what is really goin on there.

As the world becomes more and more interconnected, it becomes all the more imperative that Americans be ready to encounter the other on their terms.  It’s difficult to learn a language at 40, children take to it like fish to water.  Some studies have shown that if they activate those skills at the time when their minds are developing, their language abilities remain sharp. Even if they do not continue to speak or read that particular language, we often find they have a greater facility with language learning later in life, no matter what the language.

Interesting, no?  I can’t find the studies now and it is late, so I’m not going to look more.  But if anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear them.